This is a blog which primarily gives some attention to movies that I find were overlooked (for whatever reason) or are simply underrated. I also comment on other, mainly movie-related issues as well. I welcome any suggestions for films to be added to this distinguished list.

One word of warning: The films listed below contain spoilers, so caution during reading is required.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Finding Forrester (2000)

"Did you ever enter a writing contest?"
"Yeah, once."
"Did you win?"
"Well of course I won!"
"You win like money or something?
"Well, what did you win?"
"The Pulitzer."
-Jamal Wallace and William Forrester.

The great Sir Sean Connery officially announced his retirement from acting in 2003, the same year that The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen was released. Connery was unhappy with the making of that film, which led to his decision to retire. The movie was surprisingly dull, but Sir Sean was perfect casting as Allan Quartermain. If the film does indeed prove to be his final screen appearance, at least history will be able to say it was a great part, even if the movie itself couldn't be called that.

Before Gentlemen, though, Connery had a wonderful role in this movie as the title character, reclusive writer William 1Forrester. On a dare by friends, teenager Jamal Wallace (Rob Brown) goes into Forrester's New York apartment and, after initial hostility, Forrester offers to help Wallace with his writing skills.

This leads to an improvement in Wallace's grades at his school, as well as suspicions of plagiarism from Wallace's professor Robert Crawford (F. Murray Abraham), who is an acquaintance of Forrester.

After turning down Wallace's invitation to watch him play a basketball game at Madison Square Garden (Forrester's anxiety issues keep him from being part of a crowd), the recluse agrees to meeting with him at Yankee Stadium late on night. It is here that Forrester tells him of his personal family drama, which led Forrester to writing his book Avalon Landing.

The two fall into conflict, though, when Wallace uses the beginning of one of Forrester's essays in his class, even though he promised him that the work would never leave his apartment. This leads to Crawford accusing Wallace of plagiarism, although Wallace is told that the charge will be dropped if he wins the state championship, which he does not!

But this does not stop Wallace from writing an essay to Forrester about friendship, which Forrester receives thanks to Wallace's brother Terrell (Busta Rhymes).

This leads to Forrester reading the essay himself at a school contest, which results in great applause from the audience. He also reveals to Crawford that Wallace had permission from him to submit his previous essay. As a result, the plagiarism charge against Wallace is dropped, to Crawford's chagrin.

A year later, Wallace learns that Forrester died of cancer. His lawyer (Matt Damon) informs Wallace that Forrester has left him the manuscript for another novel and wants Wallace to write the foreword for it.

When the movie was released, Connery told Roger Ebert that the movie was similar to his classic film The Man Who Would Be King (1975) in that, at its heart, it was a story of friendship. Indeed, the real meat of this story comes from the friendship which forms between Forrester and Wallace, in the same way that King's greatness comes from the friendship between the characters played by Connery and Sir Michael Caine.

It is also nice seeing Connery share the screen again with Abraham, as the two previously acted together in The Name of the Rose (1986).

The only complaint I have with the film is that Anna Paquin doesn't have much to do as Wallace's classmate Claire Spence. I suppose this was better, though, then having her and Wallace go through the motions of often found in dramas about schools.

I must also say that this movie, while given limited release, redeemed its director Gus Van Sant as his previous film was the ill-fated remake of Psycho (1998).

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Agony Booth review: Marvel’s Transformers G1 Comic (1984-1991)

My recent review for the Agony Booth looks at the comic Marvel put out centering on the Transformers during their (pre-Michael Bay) height of fame in the 1980s.

Like many of my generation, I grew up loving the Transformers cartoon during the mid-to-late 1980s. After all, these were robots that could turn themselves into cars, planes, weapons, and even dinosaurs! What’s not to like here?

Hasbro introduced the Transformers in 1984, one year after a similar line of robots called the GoBots. Those toys were made by Tonka and also had a cartoon, which ran from 1983 until 1987. However, the GoBots faded into obscurity, while the Transformers increased in popularity, and Hasbro bought out Tonka in 1991.

Unlike Star Wars, the Transformers toys came along before the cartoon (the same applies to other lucrative Hasbro properties from the 1980s, like G.I. Joe and My Little Pony). Perhaps this is why the cartoon hasn’t aged well. Yes, you could say that about almost any animated show from that decade, but Transformers has actually aged worse than most, because its lapses in logic are even more bizarre than, say, Bugs Bunny climbing into a hot stove when he discovers a party going on inside.

For example, the Transformers series began with the three-part installment “More Than Meets the Eye”, which introduced the Autobots and the Decepticons, and showed us how their war took them from their home planet of Cybertron to Earth. It ended with the Decepticons presumably vanquished and the victorious Autobots preparing to return home. But in the very next episode, the Autobots are still on Earth, apparently with no plans to leave, even though they’re (initially) unaware that the Decepticons are still around.

Still, the cartoon proved popular enough to spawn an animated feature film in 1986. But alas, Transformers: The Movie ended up sucking hard, despite a great voice cast that included Leonard Nimoy, Scatman Crothers, Robert Stack, and the legendary Orson Welles in his final film role (which is one of the saddest things I’ve ever heard).

The movie was as logic-free as the cartoon, but the main reason the fans (myself included) hated it was because of the arbitrary way it killed off not only Autobot leader Optimus Prime, but other beloved characters as well, including Starscream, who was always a good source of laughs on the show for how he constantly challenged the authority of Decepticon leader Megatron.

Actually, it wasn’t even the fact that those characters were killed off; it was more that they were killed off in lousy ways. For a good analogy, just think of the way James T. Kirk was killed off. In other words, their deaths had absolutely no relevance to the plot of the film, which had the Transformers dealing with a huge-ass Transformer named Unicron (voiced by Welles) who could transform into a planet. We now had a new boring Autobot leader named Rodimus Prime, and a resurrected Megatron (rechristened Galvatron) who, despite sounding like Spock, just wasn’t fun to watch without an underling who was batshit-crazy enough to challenge him.

So while I certainly don’t regret the time I devoted to collecting the toys, the cartoon is not something I’ve gone out of my way to get on DVD.

But at the same time the cartoon was on the air, Marvel Comics began publishing a Transformers comic book series. It started as a four-issue limited series (complete with an appearance from Spider-Man in issue #3) detailing the robots’ war and their arrival on Earth and Optimus Prime’s attempts to stop Megatron while protecting humanity, with a few slight tweaks (the Autobots’ nerdy human pal Spike is named “Buster” here).

Strong sales prompted Marvel to continue the series beyond issue #4. Which is why that particular issue ends on an unexpected note, with the remaining Autobots, having triumphed over the Decepticons, suddenly getting blown away by Shockwave.

The first few issues of the regular series dealt with Autobot medic Rachet, who was taking Buster’s dad Sparkplug to the hospital during the events of issue #4, as he attempted to rebuild his friends. Meanwhile, Megatron has to contend with Shockwave usurping his command.

Optimus and the other Autobots are eventually restored, but they have to deal not only with the Decepticons, but with other adversaries. One of these is a woman named Josie who, in issue #6, is horribly injured and paralyzed by Shockwave. However, Josie re-emerges stronger than ever by attaching electronic implants to herself and becoming a supervillain called “Circuit Breaker”. She then embarks on a mission to eradicate Transformers on both sides. Many of her victims are Autobots, although this plot point proves effective in issue #23, when she has to deal with the Decepticons Runabout and Runamuck.

In addition to this title, there was also a four-issue miniseries in which the Transformers shared the comic page with G.I. Joe, although that series is pretty ho-hum.

Unlike the cartoon, there were plenty of running plots in the comics which eventually came together, including numerous trips to Cybertron, which introduced us to other Autobots and Decepticons who later found their way to Earth.

One of these recurring plots occurred when the Headmasters were introduced, in another four-issue series. In that series, a group of Autobots, led by Fortress Maximus, and a group of Decepticons, led by Scorponok, take their conflict to the planet of Nebulos. Once there, Transformers on both sides agree to be partnered with natives of the planet to become either “Headmasters” (basically, a Transformer whose head transforms into a person) or “Targetmasters” (the same, only with the person transforming into a weapon).

They later join the Transformers on Earth in issue #38 after receiving a distress signal sent by Goldbug (the reincarnated form of the Autobot Bumblebee).

This leads to Optimus Prime—who was destroyed in issue #24 thanks to a video game, a WTF? moment if ever there was one—being resurrected in issue #42 as a “Powermaster” (in this case, a Nebulon partner transforms into his engine).

However, the series’ crowning moment came with its double-sized 50th issue, in which Decepticons Ratbat and Scorponok attempt to obtain the Underbase, a super-powerful database that Prime sent into space centuries earlier. However, Starscream manages to get the Underbase first and becomes powerful enough to wipe out all Transformers on both sides, until Prime tricks him into basically ODing on it. In a nutshell, this issue was everything Transformers: The Movie should have been: the stakes were much higher, and many plot elements of the series came together beautifully.

That issue could have concluded the series in a reasonable and admirable way, as none of the subsequent thirty issues reach this level of greatness again (for instance, Prime dies and returns to life yet again during this period). But there are still some good moments, such as Megatron returning in issue #56 (after presumably dying in #25), only to be caught in an explosion that merges him with Rachet, à la The Fly.

It’s also nice when Circuit Breaker finally gets even with Shockwave in issue #69. We even get to see Unicron, as well as a face-off between Megatron and Galvatron, which I suppose means the 1986 film wasn’t a total waste of time.

The series ended in 1991 with issue #80 (which amusingly bears the cover caption “#80 in a four-issue limited series”), in which Prime announces that the Autobots have won and can return to Cybertron.

Most of the series came from the pen of Bob Budiansky, who was the main writer until issue #55. The rest of the series came from writer Simon Furman, who wrote the Transformers comic in the UK, which readers on our side of the pond were able to get a look at via issues #33 and #34.

The series did suffer from some of the same ludicrous plot points as the cartoon. For instance, both Prime and Bumblebee died and came back almost as often as Kenny from South Park (though Prime and Bumblebee were a lot less annoying). In another issue, Buster thwarts a Decepticon’s plan to brainwash humans with (I kid you not!) a car wash.

Plus, there was the killing off of many of the Transformers in issue #50, which was done, like in the 1986 film, solely for the purpose of introducing new characters into the mix, even though it was done in a more dramatically satisfying way. In addition, Buster was basically Spike until, lo and behold, Spike himself was introduced as Buster’s big brother, and inexplicably became an Autobot leader when Fortress Maximus’ original partner Galen was killed in issue #38.

But overall, the good in the series outweighs the bad. One of the best moments is in issue #4 of the Headmasters miniseries, when Scorponok’s partner Lord Zarak realizes that his bonding with the Decepticon is slowly taking his humanity from him. This revelation leads to him freeing the partners of the Autobot Headmasters (who were captured in the previous issue) before Scorponok’s influence completely overtakes him. This plot point made Zarak a somewhat sympathetic and even tragic character (another nod to The Fly?) because moments such as these were rarely (if ever) seen on the cartoon.

The series presenting these kinds of issues, as well as conflict within the camps of both Autobots and Decepticons, is ultimately what made this series different and more interesting than the cartoon.

Even when the series officially finished, its continuity would be picked up just two years later when Marvel published the Transformers: Generation 2 series, and later, the Regeneration One series.

So, while people today may automatically think of the dumb, annoying Michael Bay films (starring the dumb, annoying Shia LeBeouf) when they think of the Transformers, this series proved that something dramatically intriguing can be mined out of its premise.

Happily, the series has been reissued in collector’s volumes, available now from IDW Publishing.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Theater of Blood (1973)

"For thirty years the public has acknowledged that I was the master, and that this year my season of Shakespeare was the shining jewel in the crown of the immortal bard!"
-Edward Lionheart.

I recently wrote a review of the terrific comedy, Billy Shakespeare. The film, written, directed and co-edited by Deborah Voorhees, shows how we'd react to history's most famous playwright if he emerged in contemporary times.

Watching that film prompted me to look at another, more sinister look at Shakespeare. Theater of Blood tells the story of actor Edward Lionheart (Vincent Price), who, after apparently taking his own life two years earlier, sets out to kill all the critics who denied him the best actor of the year award.

Lionheart, aided by his daughter Edwina (Diana Rigg) and a group of tramps who nursed him back to health following his suicide attempt (Lionheart's fan club?), goes about these grisly tasks by re-enacting death scenes from Shakespeare's plays.

His first victim, George Maxwell (Michael Hordern), is stabbed to death by said misfits on March 15, a la the killing of the title character in Julius Caesar.

The next victim, Hector Snipe (Dennis Price), like Hector in Troilus and Cressida, is impaled through the heart with a spear before being dragged by a horse.

Lionheart next drugs Horace Sprout (Arthur Lowe) and his wife (Joan Hickson) to sleep before decapitating him, leading to his Mrs. getting the same wake-up call that Imogen did when she awakens to see Cloten in Cymbeline.

But Lionheart is not above taking dramatic license with the text he holds so dear when he permits Trevor Dickman (Harry Andrews) to be killed in order to satisfy the bloodlust of Lionheart's Shylock in The Merchant of Venice.

He also takes advantage of Oliver Larding's (Robert Coote) love for alcohol when he drowns him in a vat of wine, a la the Duke of Clarence's demise in Richard III.

The one critic Lionheart purposely does not kill is Solomon Psaltery (Jack Hawkins), whom he ensures goes to prison when he tricks him into killing his wife in a jealous rage, a la Othello.

Lionheart's plans begin to slightly derail when he attempts to kill Peregrine Devlin (Ian Hendry) by re-enacting the sword fight between Tybalt and Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet. Devlin, who has begun to suspect Lionheart as the murderer, fights admirably, but admits defeat when Lionheart overcomes him and basically tells him to get it over with. But Lionheart then decides to spare him for another time.

However, Lionheart's temporary mercy is not extended to Chloe Moon (Coral Browne, who later became Price's wife), whom Lionheart electrocutes with hair curlers as a modern-day version of Joan of Arc burning at the stake in Henry the VI: Part I.

Lionheart then kills Meredith Merridew (Robert Morley) by forcing him to eat his two poodles baked in a pie, just as Queen Tamora ate her children baked in a pie in Titus Andronicus.

He then attempts to kill Devlin again by taking him to a theater and threatening him with hot pokers in his eyes, a la the blinding of the Earl of Glouchester in King Lear, unless he announces Lionheart as the winner of the Critic's Circle Award.

Fortunately for Devlin, the police arrive in time to save him. Lionheart sets the theater on fire. When Edwina is killed in the confusion, Lionheart takes his daughter to the top of the burning building and quoting the end of Lear before falling to his death.

Some have noted the plot similarities between this film and The Abominable Dr. Phibes(1971), which also starred Price. In that film, he played the title character, who goes about killing the doctors he blames for the death of his wife by re-enacting the curses depicted in the Old Testament.

This film, while gorier, has more of a sense of humor. One could often tell the fun Price was having in many of the films he did, and that is probably never more apparent than it is here. He also has a wonderful supporting cast to back him up.

This film could be viewed as the precursor to Scream (1996) in that its killer commits his horrific acts using something he loves as inspiration (Devlin, at one point, tells Edwina that her father may have been praised more if he had done more than just Shakespeare).

Thankfully, this film never had the increasingly awful sequels Scream had.

Friday, June 13, 2014

An Unfinished Life (2005)

"You wanna know what I dreamed last night?"
"I dreamed you weren't such a miserable son of a bitch."
"That's not dreaming, that's wishful thinking."
-Mitch Bradley and Einar Gilkyson.

Since this Sunday is Father's Day, I decided to take a look at one of my dad's favorite films.

This story centers on Jean Gilkyson (Jennifer Lopez), who asks her estranged father-in-law Einar (Robert Redford) if she and her daughter Griff (Becca Gardner) can move in with him after Jean's latest romantic relationship ends badly.

Einar rooms on his Wyoming ranch with his partner Mitch Bradley (Morgan Freeman), who was attacked by a bear one year earlier and who is now cared for by Einar, who does so out of guilt as he was drunk at the time of his attack.

Although the death of Mitch's son, Griffin, put a rift on his relationship with Jean, he and Mitch soon befriend Griff. At the same time, Jean becomes smitten with the local sheriff (Josh Lucas), who manages to put the bear that attacked Mitch in the zoo.

Alas, Jean's last boyfriend Gary (Damian Lewis) tracks her down and causes trouble. Likewise, the bear is freed at Mitch's insistence.

After some (admittedly predictable) drama between Einar and Jean, he basically throws Guy out of town, while Mitch has a final face-to-face with the bear before it flees into the mountains.

Hands down, the pleasure of this film comes from the pairing of Redford and Freeman, two lions in winter if ever there were any. The funniest moment in the film is their reply when Griff asks them if they are gay.

Most everything else in this movie pales in comparison to seeing these two legends share the screen.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Stay Tuned (1992)

"Boy, this is strange!"
"Strange? I'm an animated rodent wearing high-heel running shoes. The word 'strange' is somehow lacking."
-Roy and Helen Knable.

Today is my sister's birthday, so I've decided to take a look at one of her favorite films. She and I are both fans of the great John Ritter. I was working at Borders when we got the news that he unexpectedly passed in 2003. Not long afterward, my sister asked me if I could get a DVD of Stay Tuned, which we had seen a few years earlier. It didn't take me long to get a copy for her.

In this film, Ritter plays Roy Knable, a Seattle man who, when not unhappily working as a salesman, passes the time by simply watching TV of all kinds, whether it's sporting events, soap operas, or just a good old action film. This time in front of the TV begins to anger his wife Helen (Pam Dawber), although their kids Diane (Heather McComb) and Darryl (David Tom), who also narrates the film, don't seem as neglected.

Soon after Helen smashes the TV, Roy is visited by the mysterious Mr. Spike (Jeffrey Jones), who gives Roy an up-to-date satellite system with 666 channels and programming such as Three Men and Rosemary's Baby, Northern Overexposure and My Three Sons of Bitches. When Helen sees the new system, she attempts to leave Roy before the systems satellite dish sucks them both into Hell Vision, which is basically TV hell.

Their first stop is a game show where the penalty for giving the wrong answer is death. After surviving that, they encounter Spike's former employee Crowley (Eugene Levy), who informs them that Spike arranges for souls to be killed in this world, but that they can leave if they survive for 24 hours.

As Roy and Helen go through various programs such as Duane's Underworld (which is much funnier than Mike Myers's 2008 film The Love Guru), Darryl and Diane (who were both out when Roy and Helen vanished) learn that their parents are prisoners of TV and manage to help them from the outside.

This leads to Spike honoring his contract with Roy by returning him home but not Helen, as she did not sign any contract. Roy, armed with his own remote control, save Helen in the western setting Spike trapped her in and goes through scenarios involving Star Trek: The Next Generation (prompting Roy to go "Holy Shatner!") and, the perfect in-joke for this film, Three's Company (although it'd have been nice if there had been a similar nod at Mork & Mindy), before he and Helen come home, leaving Spike and the mercy of their neighbors' mean dog, who got sucked into Hell Vision after the Knables returned.

The whole cast is pleasant and the TV scenarios are fun, but, hands down, the best moment of this film is the sequence where Roy and Helen are cartoon mice being chased by a robotic cat. The sequence, animated by Looney Tunes legend Chuck Jones, makes one wish that more of the film could have built around it.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Spielberg and Lucas: Then and Now

My recent review of War of the Worlds prompted me to take my own look at how its director Steven Spielberg and his friend George Lucas are both wrongfully blamed for creating the blockbuster mentality that Hollywood in currently engulfed in, as well as how they both hold up today as artists.

If my review sounded like I have Spielberg-bias, well, so be it. Along with Martin Scorsese and Clint Eastwood, Spielberg is probably the only director who came onto the scene in the 1970s who basically still commands the same respect today.

One reason for this is that, unlike Lucas, Spielberg still respects the people who brought him the cachet he now enjoys. For example, even before he publicly apologized for unnecessarily tampering with his classic E.T.-The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), Spielberg ensured that the original version of that movie would be available for the public. Heck, he even apologized for his part in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008). In the documentary The People vs. George Lucas (2010), film critic Rafik Djoumi commented that the disdain for Crystal Skull was more directed at Indy creator Lucas, rather than Spielberg.

Indeed, before Crystal Skull, Spielberg made his great, controversial drama Munich (2005), which scored him his sixth Oscar nomination as Best Director. Since Crystal Skull, Spielberg has gone on to direct War Horse (2011), The Adventures of Tintin (2011) and, most importantly, Lincoln (2012), which earned him another Oscar nomination for directing. At the same time, fan disdain towards Lucas continues due, in large part, to his stubborn refusal to allow the original versions of the original Star Wars trilogy to be available on blu-ray.

One of my colleagues recently posted an interesting article about how the success of Spielberg's Jaws(1975), which deservedly became a classic and a big moneymaker in spite of the incredible difficulty Spielberg and company had in making it, told Hollywood that summertime was the best time to put out the big budget escapist films. Star Wars took that even further by saying that films with special effects were certain to bring in the cash, regardless of the story.

A previous article on the same blog made an interesting comment regarding an article in GQ magazine a few years earlier. It stated that Top Gun (1986) may actually deserve the blame that some unfairly put on Jaws and Star Wars in terms of how movies are not only made but marketed. The trailer for that film basically tells the whole story and watching the music videos for the film's songs such as Danger Zone and Take My Breath Away is pretty much the same as watching the film itself since the scenes in those videos are the same as those in the movie itself.

What's interesting, though, is how Spielberg and Lucas went off on separate paths once Jaws and Star Wars came out. The making of both movies proved quite the ordeal for their respective directors. Spielberg, though, would go on to direct a number of great films after Jaws, starting with the science fiction drama Close Encounters of the Third Kind(1977). But his reputation as a escapist filmmaker probably emerged during the 1980s when he directed the first three Indiana Jones films and E.T., as well as produced such films as Poltergeist(1982), The Goonies(1985), Back to the Future(1985) and Who Framed Roger Rabbit(1988), as well as the anthology series Amazing Stories (Spielberg directed a few episodes of that show). This perception may have cost him Oscar nominations for directing both The Color Purple(1985) and Empire of the Sun(1987). Happily, Spielberg would get Oscar gold for both Schindler's List(1993) and Saving Private Ryan(1998).

In contrast, Lucas would swear off sitting in the director's chair for over two decades after Star Wars, although he was very much involved with making both The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Return of the Jedi (1983). He would continue to score by producing the Indy films, as well as Labyrinth (1986). But Jurassic Park (1993) would bring him back into the directing fold when he saw the great work his company, Industrial Light and Magic, had done for that film.

As a result, Lucas decided to direct all three Star Wars prequels himself. I don't need to remind anyone of how disappointing they all turned out to be. However, the seeds of disappointment were probably sewn in 1997, two years before the release of the first prequel The Phantom Menace. Star Wars turned 20 that year and Lucas decided to commemorate the occasion by not only re-releasing the movie, but by adding certain CGI-tweaks to the movie, which resulted in the Special Edition. These changes included the now-infamous way Han Solo shooting Greedo was redone.

But even this 1997 re-release wasn't the definitive edition of the original trilogy, according to Lucas. When the films hit DVD in 2004, there were even more changes, such as Jabba looking even more ridiculous than in the 1997 edition, and, even worse, inserting Hayden Christensen into the end of Jedi. Yet, Lucas still wasn't done because when the movies hit blu-ray in 2011, there were (yep!) more changes, such as Vader suddenly giving the patented Star Wars "NOOOO!" before he tosses the Emperor down that shaft.

I've made peace with the fact that the prequels were disappointing (I am still a Star Wars fan but have never purchased the prequels on DVD) and I'm also fine with the unnecessary changes George claims were always in his head when making the original films. All I, and others ask is that the original versions of the first trilogy be available on blu-ray in a nice pristine state (I must confess, though, I'm happy with the 2006 DVD versions, even though I can understand why some fans are not). Now that Disney owns Star Wars, maybe they can be talked into doing this.

Many were understandably upset when we heard that walkie-talkies were going to replace guns for the climax of E.T.. However, as far as I know, there was never a petition for Spielberg to restore the original version of the film because he had already announced that it would be available on DVD. In contrast, Lucas has repeatedly stated that the updated original version of the original Star Wars trilogy is the ONLY version and, shockingly, that it would cost too much money and time to release versions of the original theatrical cuts.

The fact that anything is too expensive for George just makes me laugh. When Red Tails (2012), which Lucas produced, was released, he announced, not for the first time, that he was going to retire from making movies like Star Wars and focus on smaller films.

It's ironic that we have yet to see any of these smaller films, while Spielberg has made a number of non-blockbuster movies.

Hence, I'm always looking forward to seeing the next Spielberg movie in the cinema, but go into a new Lucas picture with reservations. For his part, Spielberg defends Lucas and his rights to change the Star Wars films. I can't entirely disagree with that stance since they are friends and the movies do belong to Lucas. It is noteworthy, though, that Spielberg has basically moved on from the success he achieved in the 1970s, whereas Lucas is virtually milking his own 1970s success for all he can.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Agony Booth review: War of the Worlds (2005)

My latest Agony Booth review is of Steven Spielberg's exciting take on War of the Worlds.

I’m going to admit right up front that I really liked this movie. In fact, while I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it’s one of Steven Spielberg’s best, his version of War of the Worlds is high up there on the rather short list of remakes that are actually better than the originals.

Before the 1953 film, the story was famously adapted for radio by the great Orson Welles, and it scared the hell out of people on Halloween night, 1938. And it just so happens that both Welles and Spielberg were labeled “boy wonders” because of their directorial successes at an early age. Spielberg was a big fan of the original film, so perhaps it was only inevitable that he would make his own version of the story. While to some, this movie may appear to be War of the Worlds in name only (after all, we never get an appearance from anybody named Dr. Clayton Forrester), Spielberg’s take retains the spirit of the original work, and even includes a bit more material from the original H.G. Wells novel.

Just as in the novel, the film begins with a narrator (Morgan Freeman) telling us that humanity has been blissfully unaware that an alien intelligence has long been watching us, and waiting for the right time to strike. We then cut to New Jersey, where Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise) is finishing up his work day as a crane operator. He then races home to meet up with his pregnant ex-wife (Miranda Otto) who’s dropping off their children Rachel (Dakota Fanning) and Robbie (Justin Chatwin), so that Ray can babysit them while she and her new husband go to Boston to visit her parents.

Ray proves that he’s not exactly father of the year by being late to meet his kids, and later on by arguing with Robbie as they play catch (which ends with Ray angrily throwing a ball through one of his own windows).

Ray then goes off to nap, telling Rachel to order some food if she’s hungry (I guess this means the ten year old has her own credit card?). At the same time, reports come in of unusual lightning storms all over the world, resulting in lots of blackouts and electronic devices going dead. Ray wakes up, and after expressing his dislike for the healthy food Rachel ordered (next time, just get pizza for your kids, pal), he learns that Robbie took off in his car without permission.

Ray goes after him, and in the process encounters one of the disturbances he heard about via the news. Dark clouds suddenly appear in the skies, and lightning repeatedly hits the center of town, and just as quickly, the storm vanishes.

Ray finds Robbie, then goes to investigate the exact spot where those lightning strikes hit. A crowd has gathered around a giant hole in the pavement, which then begins to grow, causing all the neighborhood streets to break apart and buildings to collapse. The crowd then sees a huge, three-legged machine rise up from the ground. It proceeds to shoot out laser beams that vaporize anything and everything in its path, and never was the phrase “ashes to ashes” more apt.

Ray escapes the machine and its death ray and makes it home, in shock and covered in the dust that was once his neighbors. But he manages to pull himself together and pack up his kids and some supplies.

They miraculously get hold of the only working car for miles around and drive away just as their entire neighborhood gets obliterated. They make it to his ex-wife’s suburban home, which is currently empty, so Ray gets his kids ready to sleep down in the basement. Alas, they don’t get much sleep once they hear a horrific noise outside. In the dawn light, Ray discovers that a Boeing 747 has crashed into the neighborhood.

While searching the wreckage, Ray encounters a small TV news crew. The reporter tells Ray that these machines, nicknamed “tripods”, are also attacking other parts of the world. And just like in the original movie, the machines are equipped with force fields that prevent any human weapons from so much as making a scratch on them.

The reporter shows him footage of the original lightning strikes, and slows it down to show how the “lightning” was really a small capsule flying down from the sky and burrowing into the ground. Meaning, the tripods must have been buried underground many years before.

Ray then decides to head to Boston to reunite the kids with their mom. But Robbie is determined to join up with a passing military convoy to fight the aliens. He expresses his disgust for Ray, knowing he simply wants to get them to Boston so he can dump them off on their mother.

At the same time, a nice freaky moment occurs when Rachel walks off to find privacy to relieve herself. She sees a dead body floating down the river, followed by dozens more. Things get worse as they continue on their way to Boston, only to find themselves surrounded by an angry mob who steals their car away. Ray and the kids then attempt to get on a ferry going across the Hudson River, but the aliens cause the ferry to sink, forcing everyone to swim to safety.

Robbie is determined to join the soldiers in fighting the aliens, and Ray is stuck in a situation where he has to choose between saving Rachel and letting Robbie go. Eventually, he decides to save Rachel, and he and the girl are offered shelter by a guy named Harlan Ogilvy (Tim Robbins). But Ogilvy (a name taken from the novel) turns out to be a nutcase who has a mental breakdown when he looks outside and sees the aliens feeding on the blood of humans. His ranting and raving threatens to draw the aliens to their hiding place, leaving Ray no choice but to kill him (hey, I hated Howard the Duck as much as the next guy, but Robbins shouldn’t be blamed for that!).

Then comes the film’s most intense sequence, as the aliens hunt for Ray and Rachel in Ogilvy’s house using a long, snake-like periscope (similar to the one seen in the 1953 movie) and manage to find them. They run outside, where a tripod scoops them up. They’re thrown into a cage-like structure with other prisoners, but luckily, Ray was earlier able to snag some grenades from an abandoned army jeep. He pulls the pins and the resulting explosion brings the tripod to the ground.

This frees everyone, and Ray and Rachel finally manage to get to Boston, which isn’t as devastated as you’d think, given the circumstances. When they arrive, they realize that the tripods are starting to weaken. Because he’s the lead character, Ray informs the nearby military of something you’d think they would have noticed on their own already: the tripods no longer have their force fields. Once they’re told the obvious, the soldiers fire at will and destroy the alien invaders.

Ray finally delivers Rachel to her mom, who’s staying with her parents (Gene Barry and Ann Robinson, the stars of the 1953 film). Also here is Robbie, who’s miraculously survived, even though the last time we saw him he was with the army heading over a hill into a massive wall of fire. Morgan Freeman’s narration returns to inform us that, just like in the novel, the aliens were brought down because of their lack of immunity to Earth bacteria. In other words, they were smarter than the aliens in Signs because it wasn’t just plain old tap water that did them in.

The film has some head-scratching moments. Many have taken issue with Robbie surviving at the movie’s end, but perhaps the biggest WTF moment for me was why the aliens left their machines in the ground for God knows how long, and yet no one ever came across them.

But overall, the film picks up after a slow start and remains exciting until the end. The scenes with the aliens hunting people are as intense as those of dinosaurs doing the same in Spielberg’s Jurassic Park. The 1953 original was released during an era of Cold War tensions with the Soviet Union, and in their place, Spielberg’s version is made with 9/11 sensibilities (“Is it terrorists?” Robbie asks at one point in the film, and when Ray is covered in the dust of victims, it’s hard not to draw parallels to the WTC dust that covered Manhattan), which gives this movie a timely feel.

I was skeptical about a remake of War of the Worlds initially, because I thought that it had already basically been remade nine years earlier as Independence Day. Thankfully, this film manages to be different from ID4 because it’s told entirely from the POV of everyday people just trying to survive, as opposed to top bureaucrats and heads of state tasked with stopping the aliens. In an issue of Entertainment Weekly, Stephen King named the film one of the best films of 2005, calling it “human science fiction, and that’s a rarity.”

This brings us to the movie’s star. Cruise is as fine here as he was in his previous film with Spielberg, Minority Report. While we may question Ray’s parenting skills, Cruise does a good job of playing a blue-collar everyman who’s simply trying to protect his children. In another nice touch, Cruise’s usual smirking, hotshot action movie persona is subverted here, as the movie makes it clear that his character is in way over his head. One of his best moments is when Rachel asks him to sing her to sleep and Ray realizes he doesn’t know any bedtime songs, so he starts tearfully singing the Beach Boys as a lullaby.

Like basically all of Spielberg’s films, the production values are top notch. The visual effects are good without being overdone, and John Williams delivers another exciting musical score. The aliens themselves are nicely done by ILM, and it’s a nice change of pace seeing aliens in a Spielberg film that aren’t as benevolent as those of Close Encounters and E.T.

Some complained that Dakota Fanning as Rachel does nothing but shriek for the whole movie, but she and Chatwin are believable as kids caught up in something terrifying and otherworldly, to say the least.

Although the movie was financially successful, this was in a way the beginning of the end of the public’s affection for Tom Cruise, who was making headlines at the time for jumping on Oprah’s couch and hooking up with Katie Holmes and fighting with Brooke Shields about postpartum depression. This tabloid fodder ended up overshadowing the movie itself.

But the film reminds us it’s not an accident that, for a time, Cruise was a real force to be reckoned with in Hollywood. One reason for this is that as his star rose, Cruise set out to work with the best people, not necessarily those who would kiss his ass. This is why he has a nice who’s-who’s of directors in his filmography, including Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Stanley Kubrick, Oliver Stone, and Michael Mann.

While the Mission: Impossible sequels are still bringing in the money for Cruise (with a fifth installment due next year), it’d be nice if he was able to make good movies again, rather than churning out junk like Oblivion and the upcoming Edge of Tomorrow.

War of the Worlds, despite a few hiccups in logic, succeeds in its objective, which is to deliver thrilling entertainment. It gives blockbusters with big stars and great special effects a good name.